ENCINITAS — The controversy surrounding a yoga program in the Encinitas Union School District continued to intensify at a June 7 budget hearing, with one parent threatening to recall the board of trustees if they don’t fire Superintendent Tim Baird within the next month.
“The superintendent colluded with the Sonima Foundation and Scott Himelstein at the University of San Diego to falsify research about the yoga program to induce the district to implement and continue this yoga program,” said Anna Hysell, an immigration attorney who has children in the district.
“Because you colluded to defraud the district with false research, and your role in the Sonima Foundation as a board member, you are in violation of California fraud and conflict-of-interest laws, as well as the federal False Claims Act and you are subject to prosecution,” she said to Baird.
Hysell said she is handing over all the evidence she has gathered to the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education, the California Audits and Investigation Unit and the San Diego Civil Grand Jury.
“The district attorney here in San Diego has been notified,” she added. “All are very interested in my information. I move for Mr. Baird’s termination. If the board does not remove him within 30 days of today’s date I will see to it that a recall petition be started for a special election to remove you all.”
The yoga program began in 2012 and has since been completely funded by grants totaling about $4 million from the KP Jois Foundation, now called the Sonima Foundation, for which Baird is an advisory member.
The controversy began in 2013, when some parents sued the district, but ultimately lost, claiming the program violated the separation between church and state because yoga has religious overtones.
Many others supported the program until recently, when the grant funding ended.
“We asked for a step-down on that grant but it just didn’t happen so we find ourselves without the funds,” Baird said.
But the proposed 2016-17 district budget includes $800,000 from the general fund to pay for the yoga sessions.
Parents who participate in fundraisers in the district, which serves about 5,600 students, raise about that much money each year to pay for supplemental classes such as science, art and music.
“When you allocate our taxpayer money to fund your pet projects against our objections and then ask us to dig into our pockets to make up the difference to provide our kids with the necessary academics like lab science, accelerated math, art, P.E. and more you insult us and you shame yourselves,” parent Leslie Schneider said. “And our children are the ones who suffer.”
In response to negative input from parents, Baird made a presentation at the June 7 budget meeting outlining a plan to fund the program and offering to partially fund some of those programs.
But the 50 or so parents in attendance were not assuaged.
“By paying for 100 percent of yoga teachers’ salaries, not to mention the salary of a full-time district health and wellness administrator, then paying only 40 percent of science, music, technology and P.E. teacher salaries, you’re sending the message that yoga is more important than science,” Anne-Katherine Pingree said. “Yoga should be part of a balanced P.E. program.”
Baird said teachers and parent representatives from the PTA and Encinitas Educational Foundation have indicated the yoga program, which also provides teachers with a weekly hour of student-free collaboration time, “is very powerful and important.”
“Our kids are performing at extremely high levels,” he said, adding that they are doing well “in all of the measurable metrics,” such as record-low suspensions and high attendance.
“I have a vested interest in keeping our programs in place,” he said.
Baird has also cited research that indicates a positive correlation between the program and increased attendance, decreased behavioral issues and improved physical health and skills.
USD and the University of Virginia partnered to conduct a three-year research study to measure the impact of the program.
Parents accused Baird of “cherry-picking” the positive findings of the study. They also noted that Himelstein, USD’s director for the Center for Education Policy and Law that conducted the study, was a Sonima board member until last year.
Some parents said they also found evidence Himelstein was paid $500,000 by the foundation “in a very hidden way.”
They also said negative findings in the study have been ignored. For example, the research states that the study “failed to support the hypothesis that all-year yoga students … would perform better than half-year yoga students” in fitness, behavior, attendance, academic performance or emotional well-bing.
In fact, in some measures it shows the opposite.
Parents weren’t the only ones who weighed in at the budget hearing.
“I’m concerned that you want to spend $800,000 on yoga,” Jake Saidy, a Flora Vista Elementary School fourth-grader said to the board. “I don’t think the money should be invested into something I don’t feel we need. Instead we can do it as an afterschool program.
“Things I feel we need at our schools are full-time science teachers, more P.E. and more P.E. equipment,” he added.
Jake said he would also like to see money spent to avoid grade-level combination classes, where his experience “wasn’t great.”
“Maybe the money can be invested into more teachers,” he said. “That would be better for everyone. I’m asking that you please do not use any amount of money for yoga when there are more important things you need.”
Trustees are scheduled to adopt the final budget for the upcoming school year June 21.
At press time Baird had not returned phone calls asking for additional information or comments.